for £11 postage paid World-wide.
Arnold BAX (1883-1953) Spring
Fire (1. In the Forest before Dawn; 2. Daybreak; and Sunrise;
3. Full Day; 4. Woodland Love (Romance); 5. Maenads) (1913) [32:33]
(1862-1934) Idylle de Printemps (1889)
[10:45]; North Country Sketches: The March of Spring (1914)
Frank BRIDGE (1879-1941) Enter
Spring (1927) [20:50]
The Halle/Sir Mark Elder
rec. 18 March 2010, 14 October 2010, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester
(Bax; Idylle); 23-24 June 2010, BBC Studio 7, New Broadcasting House,
Manchester (March; Bridge). DDD
HALLE CD HLL 7528 [74:30]
The planning behind this disc shows not only enterprise but
also great imagination. Here we have four very different responses
to Spring from three English composers.
Bax’s Spring Fire is a great rarity. Indeed, in his recent
very wide ranging interview
with Michael Cookson, Sir Mark Elder says he knows he is the
only conductor who currently performs the work – because he’s
in possession of the only set of parts! Earlier in his conversation
with Michael, he refers to the work as “a masterpiece, a huge
orchestral piece.” That belief in the quality of the score shines
out in this very fine live performance. For all its rarity,
the piece has had a previous recording, by that other doughty
champion of English music, Vernon Handley. That was made in
1986 (CHAN 8464) and the coupling is more Bax, though I think
Elder’s programme is the more interesting.
Spring Fire dates from 1913 and is cast in five movements,
which play continuously – though, as Lewis Foreman points out
in his note for the Handley recording, at one point Bax thought
of combining the first two movements. The piece is fascinating
and often full-blooded, though the opening movement, ‘In the
Forest before Dawn’, is gorgeously languid. As Spring Fire
unfolds the orchestration is increasingly colourful, detailed
and brilliant. The depiction of sunrise, just before the end
of the second movement, may not be as expansive or extended
as in Daphnis et Chloé but it has, perhaps, more pagan
exaltation. The third movement, ‘Full Day’, is hedonistic and
exuberant. Here especially Elder’s Hallé brings Bax’s rich scoring
excitingly to life though these excellent players are just as
convincing in the more delicately scored passages, in which
at times a solo quartet of violins features. A slow, sultry
passage leads to the penultimate movement, ‘Woodland Love (Romance)’.
We’re told in the useful booklet notes that the score is marked
‘romantic and glowing’, followed by ‘drowsily’. That’s just
how the music sounds here. This spacious, erotically charged
music is superbly realised by Elder; the playing has delicacy
and refinement and the various solos are delivered excellently.
The final movement is entitled ‘Maenads’ after the female followers
of Dionysus. The music is headlong, riotously colourful and
celebratory. The orchestra really gets hold of the piece and
the brass and percussion in particular have a field day. It’s
good to hear such a rare piece receiving warm applause from
the Mancunian audience but the quality of the performance, which
is captured in vivid sound, more than justifies the reception.
Another rarity is Idylle de Printemps by Delius, one
of his earlier works. According to Calum MacDonald’s notes,
the piece was scarcely heard in the composer’s lifetime and
even less so thereafter until the 1990s. This is rather odd
since apparently Beecham owned the autograph score for many
years. Did he play it and, if not, why not? It’s not a work
that I can recall coming across much – if at all – in the past
but it’s well worth hearing. As it says in the notes, “the mood
is contemplative, taking delight in a sense of the natural world.”
The Hallé plays it marvellously, combining warmth and finesse.
Incidentally, though this is also a live recording there is
no applause afterwards. I hope that this fine new recording
will help to establish the piece, for that it what it deserves.
The March of Spring is a much more mature work in every
sense. It is the last of the four movements that comprise North
Country Sketches and the music shows the composer’s delight
at the reviving return of Spring. Sir Mark and his excellent
orchestra bring out all the detail of the score in a very fine
performance. The use of the word ‘march’ in the title is a bit
of a misnomer, though there’s a brief, slightly martial episode
a couple of minutes from the end. What Delius has written is
more of a celebration of nature and the new life of Spring.
It would be good to hear Elder in the complete North Country
Frank Bridge’s Enter Spring is not exactly standard repertoire
either. If memory serves me right Elder and the Hallé gave this
work at the 2010 BBC Proms, which would have been a few weeks
after this recording was made. It’s a fairly late work by Bridge
and so it comes from the period, after the First World War,
when his work had become influenced by some of the more advanced
European composers and had become much more adventurous and
harmonically unstable. It was commissioned for the 1927 Norwich
Festival and I was surprised to learn from Calum MacDonald’s
outstanding note on the piece that this was the first – and
only – time that Bridge received a commission for an orchestral
work. Mr MacDonald relates that the audience for the first performance
included the young Benjamin Britten, who was so impressed by
what he heard that he resolved to become Bridge’s pupil. Britten
said that he was impressed by the work’s ‘riot of colour and
harmony’ and so can we be in this splendid Hallé performance.
I know of three previous recordings, all of which I admire very
much. There’s the 2000 recording by Richard Hickox, part of
his Chandos series of Bridge orchestral music (review).
There’s also what was the pioneering account – in the sense
that it was the first to be issued – by Sir Charles Groves,
which was made in 1975 (review).
Most interesting of all, in many ways, is the live account conducted
by Benjamin Britten in 1967, forty years after he attended that
première. According to the notes with the present disc, the
Britten performance represented the revival of the work; it
had not been played for thirty-five years. Britten’s reading
was issued in 1999 by BBC Legends (BBCB 8007-2). I fear that
will be long deleted but if you ever track down a copy, snap
it up for the performance and, indeed, the entire content of
the disc, is well worth hearing.
It’s quite a while since I listened to Enter Spring and
I was very interested to note the disparity between the various
conductors in terms of the time each takes to play the score.
Groves is the most expansive, taking 21:22. Hickox and Britten
are significantly swifter overall at 18:36 and 19:44 respectively.
Elder is closer to Groves at 20:50. I must say, while in no
way disparaging the considerable merits of his rivals, that
I admire Elder’s way with the score enormously. His is an expansive
but not indulgent reading. He’s particularly successful, I think,
in balancing the often teeming detail of the score – and credit
for that must also go to the engineers. The Hallé’s playing
is absolutely superb. I think this is now the finest account
of this important score that I know; Bridge’s prodigious invention
and great originality is revealed by a highly sympathetic interpreter
and a top flight orchestra.
This is a marvellous disc. The repertoire is unusual but fully
deserving of the public’s attention. Sir Mark Elder has already
attracted many plaudits for his advocacy of English music but,
if I may say so, it’s great to see him prepared to venture quite
far off the beaten track. Music such as is contained on this
disc isn’t desperately fashionable but its neglect is unjustified,
as performances of this calibre show. I hope that Elder will
undertake more works by these three composers for advocacy such
as this can only further the cause of their music.
See also review
by Rob Barnett (Recording of the Month, May 2011)